Re-Defining Gender

April 25, 2002
Re-Defining Gender
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
While some people may brush off the notion that men and women are essentially more similar than different, Dr. Michael Kimmel takes it very seriously. In fact, he has set out to educate men and women that they are far more alike than they realize. His engaging lecture entitled “Escape From ‘Mars and Venus’: Women and Men on Earth in a New Millennium,” at Le Moyne College on April 9, explored this idea.

Kimmel, professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook and renowned speaker, explained that “Escape From ‘Mars and Venus’” is a reference to the best selling book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, by John Gray. It asserts that males and females think in completely different ways and shares with readers how to “get into” the head of the opposite sex. However, Kimmel argued that it is not necessary to condition one sex to think like the opposite sex because males and females are actually quite similar. “There are refutations of this book going on every day. Males and females work together, go to school together and do many of the same things,” Kimmel said. “Men and women may think that they are fundamentally different, but they actually want and do many of the same things.”

Kimmel suggested that tension between the sexes might lie in the misconception many females have that men are sexist and selfish. He contrasted two Roper Organization surveys, one from 1970 and another from 2000. Each randomly polled 3,000 American women regarding men. When asked if they thought that men are inherently selfish, 49 percent of females answered yes in 1970 while 56 percent of females answered yes in 2000. The women were also asked if they thought men are more interested in their careers than in building a family. Again, the percentage rose between decades. In 2000, 55 percent of the women surveyed answered yes while in 1970 only 39 percent agreed.

Kimmel stated that the results of the 2000 survey do not mean that men are doing worse now than in 1970. Rather, he believes, it reflects cultural shifts and attitude changes among men and women. “There have been enormous changes in female’s lives in the past 30 years,” Kimmel said, specifically referring to the increased visibility of gender issues, new-found sexual identity among women and changes in the work environment and family life. “Now more than ever, women have been told that they can have it all. Consequently, they have come to expect more from men and are disappointed.” Kimmel noted that, amidst all of the progress women have made over the years, men have not done much to prepare themselves for this “new world.” “Men have not recognized that their lives have changed, too. Unfortunately, they still subscribe to the same ideology as they have in the past three and four generations,” he said.

Kimmel has titled this ideology as the “Rules of Manhood.” The rules include 1) No Sissy Stuff (men should act masculine and tough at all times); 2) Be A Big Wheel (men should achieve wealth, power and status); 3) The Sturdy Oak (men should remain unemotional); 4) Give Them Hell (men should be aggressive). Most men feel that they must live up to these stereotypes of male behavior in order to be a “real man,” Kimmel explained. However, they often fail to recognize that in the process they adversely affect their relationships and perpetuate negative perceptions of their gender.

“Men want to be a ‘man’s man’ so they model their behavior after past ideology, rather than make changes,” Kimmel said. He offered ways that both men and women can facilitate a better relationship between the sexes. First, he suggested that gender issues, such as women’s efforts to end date and acquaintance rape, should be made visible not only to women but also to men.

“Most men are reluctant to become involved in women’s issues for fear that they might look feminine to their male peers. However, men’s and women’s issues often support each other,” said Kimmel. “We need to teach males, beginning when they are young, that they can feel secure in their masculinity and become involved in these issues without having to prove their manliness.” Kimmel also advocated that changes should be made in the workplace. He said that many men feel intimated and vulnerable at work due to the influx of women into the workforce. He explained how some men, because they think that women should not have careers, sexually harass females and create a hostile work environment. While men think their actions will cause women to be reluctant to work, Kimmel said that they are actually making problems for themselves.

“Gender problems in the workplace do not only affect women; they create a tense work environment for all. This, in turn, affects all aspects of the job. Men need to support change, which begins with the creation of a comfortable work atmosphere,” he said. Finally, Kimmel emphasized that changes in how men view family life are necessary to improve gender relationships. While he believes that most men in America want to be good fathers, he thinks that this can be difficult if men are only willing to put minimal effort into strengthening relationships with their children.

“Quality time is not throwing a ball around in the yard. Intimacy happens and relationships grow when you put forth the effort. When this is done, and fathers stop simply ‘helping out’ and ‘pitching in,’ but instead share with women in housework and childcare, will females be able to balance work and family,” he said. Kimmel believes that everyone will benefit from the implementation of changes in gender and social issues. “Gender issues are not exclusive to males or females. The choices that one group makes affect us all,” Kimmel explained. “It is only when each gender becomes involved in the issues and problems that affect the other that everyone will be free.”

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